August 6, 2015

Twins Notes: Duffey, May, O’Rourke, Hicks, Sano, Mauer, and Hendriks

Tyler Duffey Twins

Tyler Duffey allowed a grand total of one homer in 540 plate appearances between Double-A and Triple-A this season and then served up two homers in his Twins debut, including one to the second MLB hitter he faced. Based on the "game score" statistic Duffey had the seventh-worst debut start in Twins history. Who had the worst? LaTroy Hawkins in 1995. And then 21 years later Hawkins closed out the Blue Jays' win against the Twins in Duffey's debut.

Trevor May never deserved to be demoted from the rotation to the bullpen in the first place and hopefully the Twins remain committed to him as a long-term starter, but he's looked strong as a reliever. He's got a 3.18 ERA and 10/2 K/BB ratio in 11 innings along with increased velocity, which is probably enough to make him the Twins' best right-handed bullpen option over Blaine Boyer, Casey Fien, and trade deadline pickup Kevin Jepsen.

• Rookie reliever Ryan O'Rourke is living up to the hype of being death to left-handed hitters, who are 2-for-21 (.095) with 11 strikeouts against him since last month's call-up. Using him in a very limited role remains crucial, but the Twins may have found a long-term bullpen piece in the unheralded 27-year-old southpaw. With a strong finish he should be able to secure a spot in next year's Opening Day bullpen, which won't include Brian Duensing.

Aaron Hicks' improved overall performance is very encouraging from a one-time top prospect who's still just 25 years old, but not being able to hit right-handed pitching remains a big issue. This season he's hit .375/.429/.578 off lefties and .228/.291/.315 off righties. For his career he's hit .288/.374/.466 off lefties and .197/.277/.287 off righties. Hicks is a switch-hitter, but in both the minors and the majors he's shown little ability to be an asset from the left side of the plate.

Byron Buxton's long-awaited debut was cut short after 11 games by a thumb injury that he's still recovering from six weeks later, but fellow stud prospect Miguel Sano has immediately lived up to the hype. As expected he's struck out a ton and hit for a ton of power, but the 22-year-old has also shown incredible plate discipline with 21 walks in 27 games and an impressive ability to lay off borderline pitches. Twins fans should be thrilled with how he's looked so far.

• There have been occasional signs of life, but sadly Joe Mauer has continued to look like a shell of his former, pre-concussion self. He's hit just .275/.346/.398 in 47 games since I wrote a "What happened to Joe Mauer?" article that examined the numbers since his late-2012 concussion and expressed very little confidence in his getting back on track. Mauer is now in his second season of being a below-average first baseman after a decade of being a Hall of Fame-caliber catcher.

Danny Santana got a longer leash than most struggling Twins prospects, but he's finally back in the minors after hitting .218/.242/.298 with a ghastly 66/5 K/BB ratio in 74 games and playing mistake-filled defense at shortstop. His great rookie season screamed fluke, but no one could have expected Santana to be this awful as a sophomore. However, his career .272/.316/.392 line and poor strike zone control in the minors are reasons to be skeptical of a big turnaround.

Liam Hendriks was the Twins minor league pitcher of the year in 2011, but he went 2-13 with a 6.06 ERA in 156 innings as a starter and they lost him on waivers for nothing. Still just 26 years old, he's found a home in Toronto's bullpen with a 2.47 ERA and 50/6 K/BB ratio in 47 innings. As a starter Hendriks always had modest raw stuff, topping out in the low 90s, but this season he's averaging 94.4 miles per hour with his fastball and topping out 97.

For a lot more about Jepsen's arrival, Duffey's upside, and Hicks' improvement check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode with a special guest co-host.

July 21, 2015

What should the Twins do at the trade deadline?

Eduardo Escobar and Kurt Suzuki Twins

For the past four seasons the only questions surrounding the Twins at the trade deadline were about whether they should trade away veteran players and whether any of the veteran players they might trade away would even interest contending teams, but this season is very different. Not only have they emerged as surprise contenders by starting 50-42, the Twins have done so despite three obvious weaknesses that could potentially be addressed with midseason pickups.

Starting catcher Kurt Suzuki has been terrible on both sides of the ball. He's hit .227/.283/.303 for a .586 OPS that ranks 26th out of the 28 regular catchers. He's thrown out 19 percent of steal attempts compared to the MLB rate of 31 percent and fares poorly in pitch-framing metrics every year. Suzuki's good first half last season convinced the Twins to give him a two-year, $12 million extension, but that decision looked highly questionable then and looks awful now.

He hit .237/.294/.357 from 2010-2013 and he's hit .235/.285/.326 since the extension. At age 31 with heavy workloads throughout his nine-year career there's little reason to expect Suzuki to turn things around. He's been among MLB's worst regulars and his backups--first Chris Herrmann and now Eric Fryer--are not starting-caliber players, leaving the Twins with an ugly situation behind the plate. Their catchers rank 25th in OPS and have been below average defensively.

Catcher is the spot where the Twins could make the biggest upgrade, but unfortunately it's also the spot where even an average all-around player typically carries a huge price tag at the trade deadline. To further complicate things Suzuki is under contract for $6 million next season, which isn't much in the grand scheme of MLB money but may be enough to make the Twins think twice about giving up prospects for a second catcher making considerable money.

Opening Day shortstop Danny Santana has been even worse than Suzuki, hitting .221/.241/.306 with a ghastly 63/4 K/BB ratio and committing 15 errors in 60 games. His current .547 OPS would be the third-worst in Twins history among hitters with at least 400 plate appearances. His overall value varies depending on which defensive metrics you rely on, but has Santana as MLB's worst all-around player with -1.7 Wins Above Replacement.

The bad news is that, much like for catchers, acquiring even an average all-around shortstop at the trade deadline is costly and difficult. The good news is that the Twins already have an average all-around shortstop in Eduardo Escobar. Based on both the eyes and the numbers Escobar is a solid defensive shortstop. He's not a good hitter, which is why manager Paul Molitor choosing to start Escobar in left field 27 times is confusing, but his bat is perfectly decent at shortstop.

Escobar has hit .260/.299/.384 in 279 games for the Twins, including .254/.284/.400 in 66 games this year. MLB shortstops as a whole are hitting .256/.303/.369 this year. His numbers are never going to look very pretty and his strike-zone control is barely better than Santana's, but Escobar is an average-hitting shortstop with average-or-better defensive skills if the Twins would simply let him play the position he held for nearly all of last season.

Relievers haven't been as big of a weakness for the pitching staff as catchers and shortstops have been for the lineup, but if you remove All-Star closer Glen Perkins from the equation the rest of the Twins' bullpen is revealed to be an unreliable, low-strikeout mess. Casey Fien and Blaine Boyer have been the primary setup men while combining for 35 strikeouts in 70 innings. Perkins has 37 strikeouts in 38 innings and that's not even a particularly great rate for a reliever.

Aaron Thompson was the primary lefty setup man until his early magic wore off and he was sent to Triple-A, so Brian Duensing was elevated to the role despite 47 strikeouts in 78 innings since last season. Relying on Fien, Duensing, and Boyer to get late-inning outs is no way to stay in the playoff picture and the other arms currently in the Twins' bullpen are Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham, demoted starter Trevor May, and freshly called up southpaw specialist Ryan O'Rourke.

Perkins has converted 28-of-29 save chances with a 1.41 ERA to rank third among AL relievers in Win Probability Added at 2.48. Every other reliever in the Twins' bullpen has combined for a 4.30 ERA (which would rank 28th) and a Win Probability Added of 0.86 (which would rank 19th). Even with Perkins' strikeouts included the bullpen has by far the lowest strikeout rate in baseball at 6.1 per nine innings when no other team is below 7.3.

Better relief pitching is needed, period. There are some in-house options with upside like Michael Tonkin, who's again dominating at Triple-A and has held his own in brief stints with the Twins. Of course, there's also room for the Twins to give an extended chance to a minor leaguer like Tonkin and add a veteran to the late-inning mix. And the good news is that acquiring capable relievers at the trade deadline is common practice and doesn't have to be overly expensive.

Teams often overpay when focusing on a specific reliever, especially a big-name closer, which is what the Twins did in sending top catching prospect Wilson Ramos to the Nationals for so-called proven closer Matt Capps in mid-2010. However, when teams are flexible and patient enough to let the market sort itself out there are usually decent setup men to be had for mid-level prospects, which is what the Twins did in getting Jon Rauch and Brian Fuentes inexpensively.

Perkins is a very good closer under team control through 2018, so there's zero need for the Twins to go nuts pursuing a big-ticket arm like Aroldis Chapman, Jonathan Papelbon, or Francisco Rodriguez. Instead they merely need someone to provide an upgrade over Fien, Duensing, and Boyer, which isn't a high bar and gives them plenty of options. Making the bullpen better should be a priority, but avoiding overpaying for two months of a veteran reliever is also important.

Catcher, shortstop, and bullpen are three obvious weaknesses. They can improve shortstop at no cost by handing the job back to Escobar. They should be able to improve the bullpen at minimal cost by shopping around for a decent setup man who can throw 20 solid innings down the stretch. To improve catcher would come with a bigger cost, because there are no in-house options, good catchers carry high price tags, and Suzuki is already on the books for $6 million in 2016.

For a lot more about the Twins' trade deadline plans, including some potential big-name targets, check out this week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

April 15, 2015

Don’t act surprised: Twins build bad bullpen, get bad relief pitching

Minnesota Twins v Chicago White Sox

As part of the frustrating decision-making process that led to choosing the older, lower-upside option to fill nearly every up-for-grabs roster spot coming out of spring training the Twins now have a bullpen stocked with marginal big leaguers. To make matters worse their best setup man, Casey Fien, has been hurt and their lone standout reliever, Glen Perkins, continues to be in a role reserved for "save" situations that severely limit his overall usage.

All of which has added up to new manager Paul Molitor turning to an assortment of replacement level-caliber arms and repeatedly watching them fail, often in high-leverage spots. Twins relievers have combined to throw 21 innings with a 5.91 ERA and nearly as many walks (8) as strikeouts (10). Among all MLB teams the Twins' bullpen ranks either worst or second-worst in ERA, xFIP, strikeout rate, strikeout-to-walk ratio, and opponents' batting average.

Assuming that Fien's shoulder issues prove minor he'll soon be taking on a lot of the late-inning setup work that's been going to lesser options and in general the Twins' bullpen isn't as bad as it's looked so far because basically no bullpen is that bad. However, when you bypass better, younger, higher-upside options to give jobs to mediocre, low-upside veterans a bad bullpen is exactly what you get. No one, least of all the Twins, should be surprised by the early results.

This offseason 32-year-old left-hander Brian Duensing was a non-tender candidate because his inability to neutralize right-handers made him ill-suited for a setup role, but the Twins retained him for $2.7 million and kept him in a key role. They also spent $2.2 million on 33-year-old free agent right-hander Tim Stauffer, whose nice-looking raw numbers for the Padres came attached to a 90-mph fastball and included a 4.28 ERA away from MLB's most pitcher-friendly ballpark.

When the Twins signed Blaine Boyer to a minor-league deal in January it seemed like a move made mostly for organizational depth, because he's a 33-year-old journeyman with a 4.63 ERA in the majors and a 5.31 ERA at Triple-A, but he ended up making the team largely on the basis of a half-dozen spring training innings. Another former minor-league signing, 28-year-old journeyman Aaron Thompson, was chosen as the third lefty despite an underwhelming track record.

If healthy Perkins is a good closer and Fien is a decent setup man, but the Twins chose to fill the other five bullpen spots with Duensing, Stauffer, Boyer, Thompson, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham. And in creating that seven-man bullpen in which the only pitcher under 30 years old is there via the Rule 5 draft Molitor and the front office passed over several younger, cheaper, higher-upside relievers already in the organization.

Michael Tonkin is 25 years old and has pitched well in a few brief stints with the Twins, posting a 3.26 ERA and 26/9 K/BB ratio in 30 innings while averaging 94 miles per hour with his fastball. He was sent back to Rochester for his third straight season at Triple-A, where Tonkin has a 3.39 ERA and 85/21 K/BB ratio in 80 innings. He's young and cheap, he throws hard and misses bats, and he's fared well at Triple-A and in Minnesota.

Caleb Thielbar spent most of the past two seasons in the Twins' bullpen and pitched well as the third lefty, throwing 94 innings with a 2.59 ERA and 74/30 K/BB ratio. Ryan Pressly also spent much of the past two seasons in the Twins' bullpen, posting a 3.60 ERA in 105 innings. Pressly's secondary numbers were much less impressive, but he averaged 93 miles per hour with his fastball in the majors and has pitched well at Triple-A. They were both demoted to Rochester.

Lester Oliveros was acquired from the Tigers in the Delmon Young trade and missed most of 2013 recovering from elbow surgery. He returned last season to split the year between Double-A and Triple-A, posting a 1.64 ERA with 88 strikeouts and zero homers allowed in 66 innings. At age 27 his upside is limited and Oliveros' control can be iffy, but he throws in the mid-90s and has averaged 11.2 strikeouts per nine innings for his minor-league career.

Using the $5 million they spent on Duensing and Stauffer to acquire better relievers is something the Twins could have done this offseason, but even ignoring that possibility they had no shortage of intriguing, cheap, in-house bullpen options deserving of an opportunity and/or extended stay in the majors. They chose to give roster spots to none of them and the early results are what that flawed decision-making process deserves.

For a sadness- and anger-filled discussion of the Twins' rough opening week, check out the latest "Gleeman and The Geek" episode.

January 26, 2015

Arbitration settlements and taking a guess at the Opening Day roster

brian duensing twins

Last time the Twins actually completed an arbitration hearing with a player was Kyle Lohse in 2005 and 2006, so not surprisingly they reached pre-hearing settlements with six of their seven arbitration-eligible players and released the seventh, Anthony Swarzak. They'll pay a total of $14.225 million to Trevor Plouffe, Tommy Milone, Brian Duensing, Jordan Schafer, Casey Fien, and Eduardo Nunez, bringing their projected 2015 payroll to around $106 million.

That slots in between their franchise-record $113 million payroll in 2011 and $100 million payroll in 2012, representing a sizable increase from the sub-$90 million payrolls of 2013 and 2014. After back-to-back seasons in which general manager Terry Ryan declined to spend big chunks of the allotted payroll space approved by ownership it's a positive step, although there's room to quibble with the value of dropping about $17 million on Torii Hunter, Duensing, Milone, and Nunez.

With revenues across MLB skyrocketing past $9 billion in 2014 and the Twins trying to avoid a fifth straight 90-loss season amid plummeting fan interest it's at least nice to see ownership spending a reasonable amount of their revenue instead of simply pocketing it while giving the "we don't want to spend money just to spend money" excuse. And thanks largely to long-term contracts handed out to veteran starting pitchers they already have $70 million committed to six players for 2016.

In addition to pushing the payroll past $100 million the six arbitration settlements also put into focus the likely Opening Day roster, although there are definitely a few places where the Twins could surprise. Below is my best current guess at the 25-man roster, with the caveat that they're able to release any of the arbitration-eligible players during spring training while being on the hook for only 30 percent of their salary. First, the position players:

C  Kurt Suzuki
1B Joe Mauer
2B Brian Dozier
SS Danny Santana
3B Trevor Plouffe
LF Oswaldo Arcia
CF Aaron Hicks
RF Torii Hunter
DH Kennys Vargas

C  Josmil Pinto
IF Eduardo Escobar
IF Eduardo Nunez
OF Jordan Schafer

New manager Paul Molitor has made it clear that he views Danny Santana as a shortstop and not as a center fielder, and since it's hard to imagine the Twins benching Santana or demoting him back to the minors after he hit .319 as a rookie that means he's the favorite to supplant Eduardo Escobar at shortstop. Based on his 2014 performance alone Escobar certainly doesn't deserve to lose the job, but his track record suggests a part-time role might be a better fit anyway.

Escobar slotting into a utility man role makes retaining Nunez look even iffier, but they seem to think all the evidence showing him as a poor hitter and poor fielder are wrong. Schafer played his way into the 2015 plans with a good 41-game stint after being claimed him off waivers and using him in center field is possible if they pull the plug on Aaron Hicks. Josmil Pinto is the presumed backup catcher, but they bailed on him in that role quickly in 2014. Now the pitchers:

SP Phil Hughes
SP Ervin Santana
SP Ricky Nolasco
SP Kyle Gibson
SP Tommy Milone

CL Glen Perkins
RH Casey Fien
RH Tim Stauffer
RH Ryan Pressly
RH Mike Pelfrey
LH Brian Duensing
LH Caleb Thielbar

Milone is signed for $2.775 million when the Twins had the option to non-tender him and Mike Pelfrey is under contract for $6 million, so my assumption is they'll fight for the final rotation spot and the loser will wind up in the bullpen. Trevor May and Alex Meyer are higher-upside options for the rotation or bullpen, and in general there are no shortage of alternative bullpen options including Michael Tonkin, Blaine Boyer, Lester Oliveros, and Rule 5 pick J.R. Graham.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

December 10, 2014

Twins Notes: Arbitration, defensive numbers, coaches, and Colabello

Eduardo Nunez Twins

• Faced with seven arbitration-eligible players, the Twins tendered 2015 contracts to everyone but Anthony Swarzak. Cutting ties with Swarzak makes sense given his lack of upside and mediocre performance in a low-leverage role, but in previewing their arbitration-based decisions last month Tommy Milone, Brian Duensing, and Eduardo Nunez also struck me as potential non-tender candidates. Instead they kept all three at a projected combined salary of around $6.5 million.

Nunez in particular seems to serve little purpose given that he's 27 years old and hits like a utility infielder without actually being able to play defense like one. His projected $1.2 million salary is inconsequential, but it's hard to imagine the Twins not being able to find a better use of a roster spot. Trevor Plouffe and Casey Fien were no-brainers to keep and rightly or wrongly the Twins probably felt retaining Jordan Schafer for around $1.5 million was an easy call as well.

In keeping six of the seven arbitration-eligible players and signing Torii Hunter for $10.5 million the Twins have around $90 million committed for 2015 based on guaranteed contracts, projected arbitration salaries, and minimum salaries needed to fill out the roster. That's already more than they spent in 2013 or 2014 and there's been little indication that a large increase in spending is planned for 2015. And the roster also looks relatively set barring trades.

• In the wake of the Hunter signing Terry Ryan was asked again about defensive statistics and again downplayed their importance while reiterating that the Twins rely on their eyes to evaluate defense. Meanwhile, in losing 90-plus games each year from 2011-2014 the Twins' defense was 98 runs below average according to Ultimate Zone Rating, 107 runs below average according to Plus/Minus, and 115 runs below average according to Defensive Runs Saved.

Ryan repeatedly saying the Twins need to pitch better and repeatedly denying the Twins' defense has been awful is a weird, frustrating disconnect. Their outfield defense rated particularly poorly, yet when asked about that Ryan scoffs at the numbers and insists guys like Josh Willingham were perfectly adequate. He also scoffed at the numbers all rating Hunter as 15-25 runs below average during the past two seasons, saying:

I saw him, I think, maybe seven games or so [in 2014]. His defense for me was more than adequate. He's not the type of guy that you're going to say, "Oh, he can go over there and play center for a length of time," but I would guarantee you he could go out and play center field for a couple days and you wouldn't really miss too much. ...

You can use the metrics or you can use the eye, and you should use both. In this instance, I think we've seen him play probably 30-35 games as an evaluation process this year, and for the most part the lowest grade we had on him was average range. That's pretty good.

Twins scouts watched Hunter for 30-35 games and graded him average or better defensively, so that's what Ryan and the front office relied on rather than trusting the defensive numbers that all agree he was somewhere between bad and horrendous. By the way, Hunter had about two balls hit to him per game this year, so evaluating his defense based on watching 30-35 games is like evaluating a hitter based on watching 60-70 at-bats.

It's one thing to pay little attention to defensive numbers if your scouting department is doing an amazing job evaluating defense with their eyes, but in the Twins' case that seemingly hasn't been true for a while now. Ryan saying "I would guarantee you he could go out and play center field for a couple days and you wouldn't really miss too much" about a 39-year-old Hunter is crazy talk and the type of thing that makes me question a whole lot about the Twins behind the scenes.

• To round out Paul Molitor's coaching staff the Twins hired Butch Davis as first base coach. He spent 20 years coaching in the minors for the Orioles and joins pitching coach Neil Allen as the only coaches without previous Twins tiesTom Brunansky and Joe Vavra were with Molitor on Ron Gardenhire's staff, Gene Glynn was Rochester's manager, Rudy Hernandez coached 14 years in the organization, and Eddie Guardado pitched 12 years for the Twins.

• According to Darren Wolfson of 1500-ESPN the Twins reached out to fired Cubs manager Rick Renteria about becoming Molitor's bench coach, but "he rejected the overture immediately" and they eventually settled on Vavra. And according to Bob Nightingale of USA Today they wanted to hire Delino DeShields first base coach, but he chose instead to manage at Triple-A for the Reds and the job went to Davis.

Chris Colabello was dropped from the 40-man roster and claimed off waivers by the Blue Jays. He followed up a big April for the Twins by slumping horribly and getting demoted to Triple-A, and Colabello later admitted that he played most of the season with a significant thumb injury. At age 31 and with little defensive value it's hard to fault the Twins for giving up on Colabello after he hit .214/.284/.364 with a 124/34 K/BB ratio in 114 games.

Shane Robinson agreed to a minor-league deal with the Twins after spending the first nine years of his career in the Cardinals organization. Robinson has good speed and enough range to handle center field defensively, but he's hit just .231/.303/.308 in 452 plate appearances spread over parts of five seasons in the majors. He's shown a bit more offensive promise at Triple-A, but at age 30 he's strictly a backup option in what currently looks like a crowded outfield.

Danny Santana played mostly center field as a rookie despite never playing there regularly in the minors, but Molitor indicated that the Twins view him as an infielder for 2015. That seemingly makes them more likely to pursue center fielders in trades and free agency--Schafer, Robinson, and Aaron Hicks are the current in-house options--and could mean Eduardo Escobar is headed for a bench role after being an above-average starting shortstop in 2014.

• Willingham, whom the Twins traded to the Royals in August for minor leaguer Jason Adam, announced his retirement at age 35. Willingham had a great first year in Minnesota, but ended up hitting .232/.353/.446 and missing 116 of a possible 440 games for the Twins during a three-year, $21 million contract. Helluva career, though. Despite not getting his first extended chance in the majors until age 27 he posted an .823 OPS with 195 homers in 1,147 games.

Francisco Liriano, who posted a 3.20 ERA with 338 strikeouts in 323 innings for the Pirates during the past two years, re-signed for three years and $39 million. By comparison, the Twins have Ricky Nolasco signed for another three years and $37 million.

• Hunter debuted for the Twins on August 22, 1997 by pinch-running for Terry Steinbach in a loss to the Orioles. In that game Molitor was the Twins' designated hitter, batting third versus Baltimore starting pitcher Scott Erickson.

This week's "Gleeman and The Geek" episode was recorded at Sociable Cider Werks and we talked Hunter, Hunter, and more Hunter.

This week's blog content is sponsored by Uber, which is offering a free ride to first-time users who sign up with the promo code "UberGleeman."

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